Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Littler Britain still too small to change ensign

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The NZ flag. Photo / Getty Images
The NZ flag. Photo / Getty Images

It has long been a bad habit of New Zealand that just when we have a chance to beat Australia at something, we choke. For a while, with the Rugby World Cup, it looked like we might be getting over that.

We started well back in the late 1800s and early 1900s - we adopted our flag before Australia adopted its similar one. But when New Zealanders find voting papers in their letterboxes this week asking if they want to change that flag, it seems likely many will say no.

Even some in Australia are urging New Zealand to beat them in this race. The Ausflag group promoting change in Australia (and better funded than its New Zealand counterpart) took out an advertisement in the Herald yesterday urging us to "end the confusion" between the flags: "Ditch the Jack and show the world you've grown up".

A look on Ausflag's website includes a picture of the flag-raising ceremony for the women's rowing pairs at the 2012 Olympic Games. United Kingdom won gold, Australia silver and New Zealand the bronze.

"It looked like Mother England teaching her two children to fly," the website remarks. "Britain, Little Britain and Littler Britain."

Disgruntlement at the similarity in designs is not new. The Herald archives include a story from 1870, a year after our current flag had been approved, though only for shipping. It makes an arch observation that the adoption of a similar design "by a neighbouring colony" (likely Victoria, whose new 1870 flag was a near-copy of the New Zealand one) was its "colonial badge". "Our Australian brethren followed suit and partially copied us."

The Victorian flag inspired the national flag selected on federation in 1901.

But similarity to Australia's flag is not a reason for us to change ours.

This week there was a well-argued letter to the editor from Thomas Newton, an Australian living in Christchurch. Newton pointed to the erosion of ties over the ages between the UK and New Zealand (and Australia), especially the 1970s when Britain severed economic ties with New Zealand and rights of citizenship. Since then, New Zealanders' rights in the United Kingdom have eroded further.

New Zealand's foreign policy often differs from that of the country whose flag it bears on its own - from the nuclear-free legislation to participation in wars.

If this is a debate about nationhood, the big question is whether the Union Jack still deserves a place on our flag.

Even the Green Party - normally a party that sticks to its principles like a barnacle - appears to have forgotten that. The Green MPs are bracing to put a tick by the symbol they have long despised: the Union Jack. Only one - Kennedy Graham - has decided to vote for change.

The reason the Green leadership has given is that they do not like the design chosen by the public in a referendum.

It is such an absurd turn of events that former Green MP Keith Locke took the left to task for voting for the "colonial flag".

The Ausflag campaign is trying to get bipartisan support for change there. For a fleeting moment New Zealand had that. It is why the Prime Minister felt confident enough to put it to a referendum in the first place.

Labour and the Greens had long advocated change. National was the hold-out. So when Prime Minister John Key came on board it was enough to justify a move.

Alas, it was shortlived bipartisanship. Labour and the Greens suddenly decided they didn't want change after all. Although Labour had previously seen it as a step on a gentle path to republicanism it has now apparently decided republicanism should be a boots-and-all exercise with a flag change as part of that.

Good luck to them.

If New Zealand is so change-averse it won't even change a flag, there seems little hope of going the whole hog on a republic.

Those rooting for us in Australia need not hold their breath.

Littler Britain is set to bottle out again.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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